Art: Whose life is it anyway?

    In an east London gallery, Waldemar Januszczak struggles to match striking photographs of Russian women with their anonymous voices and sad personal sagas

    Wastage is high on the list of problematics, of course. If you’re looking to spend, but are driven by no proper values, thousands turn into millions with obscene ease. Whether it be the funding of the Dome or the buying of that ludicrously overpriced Raphael miniature with which the National Gallery emotively blackmailed the nation — “Save our Raphael”, indeed — the lotto leadership has shown itself to be ridiculously adept at frittering. But on my stretch of the cultural terrain, the art world, it isn’t the waste that amounts, in the end, to the worst consequence. The most regrettable impact on art of the Billy Connolly-endorsed national gambling franchise has been the squeezing out of the smaller galleries and the stealing away from them of so much of their rightful attention.

    Here’s how it happened. It’s a simple mathematical progression. Britain used to have one gallery called the Tate. It stood on the banks of the Thames at Millbank and was, for 100 years, the national collection point for modern and British art. The old Tate used to put on two or three shows a year, and, because it was the national collection, we critics were obliged to cover them. No great damage there. We still had 50 weeks of the year to devote to other venues.

    However, when the lotto lolly began pouring in and fuelling the crazed expansion of the Tate empire, when the old Tate split in two to form Tates Modern and Britain, when the amoebic process of division into franchises led to the creation of all those other Tates around the country, the mathematics of the situation went haywire. Both Tate Modern and Tate Britain put on many more exhibitions today than the old Tate used to. They have to. Exhibitions are the only section of their arrangement for which they can charge entrance fees. Both have set up aggressive and skilled marketing departments to sell these exhibitions. Yet at our end of the arrangement, the receiving end, the Tate remains a cultural institution of national import that we critics feel obliged to notice. So, instead of writing about two or three Tate shows a year, as we used to, we now have to deal with 10 or 12 or more.

    In the past months, I have written about Constantin Brancusi, Edward Hopper, Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Damien Hirst, the Art of the Sixties, Gwen and Augustus John, Michael Landy, Bruce Nauman, Luc Tuymans, Robert Frank and the Turner prize. All important shows. All demanding to be covered. All at Tate Modern or Tate Britain. Looking through my diary and doing some crude maths on the back of the Tate’s invitation to its new Caro display, which I’ve somehow succeeded in avoiding, I see that almost a quarter of my annual exhibition review space has been claimed by one lotto-inflated art institution. That can’t be right.

    So far, the only answer I have been able to come up with to the dismal maths of this situation is to impose a blanket ban on myself from writing about all Tate exhibitions. It’s a tough call. But it would certainly free up space for the rest of the nation’s shows. My ambition is to avoid writing about Tate shows for the first six months of 2005. I’d be delighted to try if you send in enough letters of encouragement to my editor. In fact, it’s such a good idea that I ’m going to start right now.

    On the Hackney Road, in east London, round the back of the flashy Hoxton square mile, there’s a large showroom space that a while ago became the Rhodes + Mann gallery. It puts on ambitious contemporary shows. I go there every now and then, but have never written about it before. Which is disgraceful.

    A month ago, Rhodes + Mann opened a most intriguing display called Moscow Girls, created by the enterprising Melanie Manchot, an artist I’ve admired for several years, but have also never written about before. No space. I saw Moscow Girls on the run and wanted to review it. But first there was Bruce Nauman at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, then the Tate’s marvellous Robert Frank exhibition, then the Turner prize at Tate Britain. Before I knew it, the month had passed, and I had spent all of it reviewing the lotto-fattened, super-whopping multi-Tate.

    Moscow Girls consists of a ring of huge photographic full-lengths of striking Russian women, who stare out at you with that instinctive haughtiness Russian women are so good at. The situation has about it some of the dynamics of internet dating. As a viewer, you walk in and feel as if you need to make some choices. The very cute Olga poses on waste ground in front of a range of distressing tower blocks. The very sultry Masha — the one with the cubist cheekbones — has a tsarist palace block as her backcloth. Galya, the dippy one, with the hair cut longer on one side and the irregular green pantsuit to match, is in a park.

    All the girls are proud victims of fashion, and because they are Russian, and wacky, they sport some rather curious combinations of clothes. I particularly enjoyed Oxana’s fish-shaped handbag and the lurid way it matched her dress. Lina, with her long black coat and trousers, stands like a villain in a spaghetti western in front of an unusually squalid shooting stall at some godforsaken Moscow amusement arcade.

    All this happens at the exhibition’s perimeter, on the walls. But in the middle of the gallery, there’s a circular seating area from which emanate the sounds of various female monologues. You pick up the headphones. You begin listening. And it soon becomes obvious that the girls on the walls are actually talking to you. Telling you their stories. One remembers coming home pregnant to her out-of-work husband and finding him in bed with his lover. Another tells of her days as a heroin addict, and the balcony on which her brother OD’d and her mother committed suicide. You know it’s one of the surrounding girls. But which one? In a clever move, the voices remain anonymous.

    The individual stories soon begin coalescing into one glum post-perestroika lament. Speaker after speaker admits to this disappointment or that with the way things have turned out. I was struck by the complete lack of wholesomeness or goodness in their confessions. None of the girls has any children. The one that came closest had a baby that was still-born. Families are broken. Love is betrayed. The modern world swirls like a poison through these histories. Sure, the Moscow Girls look good, and the show never entirely loses the sexy frisson of online dating. But you wouldn’t want to live any of their lives. Though every one of them dreams of living one of ours.